This post is part of the Family Travel FAQ series where I- you guessed it- answer reader questions. I’m happy to help with travel dilemmas whenever I can and encourage you to reach out at email@example.com as well as via Facebook or Twitter.
Today Susan asks a question I have answered piecemeal but never in one handy post on the blog: How do I get the best deals on airline tickets? I have to be in XX city on YY date and don’t have enough miles for an award ticket.
When your parameters are set in stone, you’re going to pay top dollar. You’re not going to get 100% of what you want booking the best priced ticket. If you need 100% of it, pony up. However, between what you need and what you want could lie that great deal- if you’re willing to accept good enough instead of perfect.
We’re often thinking big- Europe and Asia- but these strategies are also effective (sometimes more so) on smaller USA destinations. I’ve found tickets to Iowa that were more expensive than those to Italy!
Family Travel FAQ Rule #1: Find the absolute non-negotiable first.
If you’re going to an event, your absolute non-negotiable may be the place. Alternatively if you’re on a school schedule it may be the date. However, if you flex at all with one or the other you might find huge savings, especially on 3 or more tickets.
Once I’ve located my non-negotiable (which these days is usually the dates) here’s what I flex, in the order of which I flex it. I use Google Flights for most of my flight searches- ITA matrix is also handy but Google Flights is more user friendly.
- Departure city: In DC we’re lucky enough to have 2 airports close by- IAD and DCA. If I can’t find what I need there, I’ll flex up to four hours depending on the length and cost of the trip. If I’m buying four tickets I’ll often save enough to make the cost of gas, tolls, and parking worth it, as in this Hawaii trip I priced from Newark instead of DC. Google flights (using the plus sign on the departures box) flexes up to 150 miles- over that you’ll need to use ITA Matrix which will flex up to 2000. For DC I tend to just use BWI, PHL, EWR, and JFK.
- Arrival city: If I’m flying to Europe or Asia I use a “just get over the pond” strategy as intercontinental flights are readily available and inexpensive. Trains are also an option in Europe. Take a look at my Provence on Points trip for some ideas- the strategies are the same for paid or points tickets.
Family Travel FAQ Rule #2: Stop Thinking in Circles.
Yes, you need to be in XX city on YY date, but the standard round trip is unnecessary. Have some fun! Try an open jaw: arriving into one city, taking a train, leaving from another. Got a layover? See if you can make it a free stopover and add a destination to your trip. Icelandair is the king of the free stopovers!
Family Travel FAQ Rule #3: Look outside the major airlines.
Some of your best flight options may not show up on search. In the States Southwest is the biggest hole in most search engines, but in Europe and Asia many budget airlines don’t show up. To find a handy list, I go to Wikipedia and type in my gateway airport- it gives me a list of EVERY airline and destination that goes in and out of that airport. If I’m looking for Europe I’ll try FlyLC: a low cost airline search engine.
Family Travel FAQ Rule #4: Consider a one way car rental.
This tip works best during one way car rental season but many trips are within driving distance one way but not both in a long weekend or a week. I’m going to Florida next month via flight on the way down and via $8/day car rental on the way back. I wouldn’t want to drive I-95 round trip often but one way is totally do-able.
I’d love to hear what has worked for you when booking paid airfares on oblications and other set in stone trips.
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